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French Rules of Capitalization Posted by on Sep 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

There are quite a few differences between capitalization in English and in French. You may have already noticed that the first person singular pronoun “I” is not capitalized in French except at the beginning of a sentence. For example, you would write: “Je t’aime,” but “Tu sais que je t’aime.”

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Ok, this seems pretty obvious, right? But there are quite a few other differences as well. In general, French words are not capitalized as often as in English, even in titles of published works. For a list of useful French capitalization rules, see below:

  • Months and days of the year are not capitalized: janvier, février, mars, avril, mai, juin, juillet, août, septembre, octobre, novembre, décembre and lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi, vendredi, samedi, dimanche. 
  • Religions are not capitalized: This also holds true to adjectives referring to religious groups. For example: Christian and chrétien, Muslim and musulman, Jew and juif. There are three exceptions to this rule: l’Islam is always capitalized (although le christianisme et le judaïsme are not) and the adjectives Hindou and Bouddhiste are always capitalized as well.
  • Nationalities and languages are not capitalized (unless they are proper nouns): French and le français, Spanish and l’espagnol. “I have a French friend” would become j’ai un ami français. However, if the nationality is used as a proper noun, then it is capitalized in French. For example: “I spoke with an American man today” would become j’ai parlé avec un Américain aujourd’hui.
  • Titles in front of a Proper Noun: For example, in English we would say Professor Smith, because this is a title preceding a proper noun. In French, however, it not be capitalized: le professeur Smith.
  • But…titles in French are capitalized differently than in English: This can get somewhat complicated. In English, important words and words that are over a certain length are normally capitalized in titles. There seems to be less agreement in French. However, an easy rule to remember is that the first word is always capitalized, along with the second word if the first word is an article. So, this would give: Les Misérables or Les Fleurs du mal. Importantly, if another word has the same weight as the first capitalized word, than that would be capitalized, too. Here’s an example of this: Dostoyevsky’s Crime et Chatîment. Because these two words (“crime” and “punishment”) are separated by a conjunction and bear equal weight in the sentence, they are both capitalized.
  • French family names are normally in all caps for official documents: Often, when writing one’s surname on official documents, the French will write their last name in all caps. For example: Pierre RICHARD or Victor HUGO.

Do you have any other questions about capitalization that I may have left out? Leave your questions in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

 

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About the Author:Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at http://www.imaginistwriter.com. A la prochaine!


Comments:

  1. sunshine:

    Definitely the all caps for last names was a shocker. Thanks for the info., what’s the best source for more on grammar and the likes?. Merci et a plus.

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @sunshine Thank you, Sunshine. We cover lots of grammatical topics here on the blog. And you can always send in a request (or just reply with a request here) and I’ll write a blog post about it!

  2. Alla:

    Thanks for doing this Elizabeth, I was very surprised to realize that English capitalization rules don’t translate very well to French. French capitalization rules have always confused the hell out of me, so this is super useful!

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Alla You are very welcome, Alla!

  3. Sue Johnson:

    I am writing an art history paper and I want to make sure my headline titles are properly capitalized. One painting is called “L’Alcove” — should the article be capitalized in this usage?

    I also have a painting entitled “La Mariee”. Should both first letters be capitalized? On the same page I have “La Demoiselle D’Honneur.” I have lower cased the d’ in Honneur, but I’m still unsure about capitalizing the other words.

    Thank you for your help! Merci beaucoup!
    Sue Johnson

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Sue Johnson Good question, Sue! Yes, in the first instance, you would capitalize the article as well as the first letter of the word “Alcove.”

      In the second instance, I would write it as “La Demoiselle d’honneur.” “Honneur” does not hold the same weight as “Demoiselle,” thus it does not need to be capitalized.

      I hope I got this response to you in time… 🙂

  4. Carolyn:

    Hi!
    I’m working on a project and am using the words “Need Assistance?” as a title. Our translation is “Besoin d’aide ?”
    Is it appropriate to capitalize the D in d’aide to be consistent?
    Thank you!
    Carolyn

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Carolyn Nope! It’s perfect as is, Carolyn. No need to capitalize the “d.”

  5. Linda Addison:

    Hello, thank you for the very interesting page. I have a problem with a family document I’m writing. There’s someone known as l’Oncle Feydeau – should he be written like that, or should it be L’Oncle Feydeau or something else? Other members of the family are just called Oncle Untel or Tante Lautre, without the particle.
    I’d be grateful for any advice.

    Thank you.

    Linda

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Linda Addison Hi Linda,

      The article follows the capitalization of the word. Thus, it should be L’Oncle Feydeau. Good question!

  6. mad tony:

    I also remember reading Belgian music charts and seeing SURNAME followed by first name. JOHN ELTON

  7. Judy:

    If the month is at the very top of a letter in French, such as:

    Décembre 2016 should it be capitalized?

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Judy Good question, Judy. If it’s the first word and is being used almost as a title at the top of the page, then, yes, I would capitalize it.


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